By Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.
For over twenty years, I have been listening to life stories of many incredible people. It is part of my job. Many people might think I am listening to their problems, but I hear stories. People who come to me are brave storytellers. It is a privilege to hear a personal mythology that has never been shared before. There are times when someone’s story is a mixture of broken pieces of tragedies and losses. No matter how fragmented and tragic a person’s story, I know there is a hero somewhere in it, waiting to be validated. I view psychotherapy as a place of storytelling where a fragmented tale can be weaved into a hero’s journey, and help people feel proud of their resiliency and courage to survive. This is how people become mythical beings. Often the emotional wounds begin to heal once the personal narrative finds a voice.
Sometimes the stories are forgotten, or filled with emotional intensity that is too painful to share. It is not easy to share narratives that have been captive by fear and shame in the dark corner of one’s memory. I empathized with how hard it must be to liberate a personal story that is filled with tragedies. Perhaps, the story was shared once before, and the storyteller did not receive the empathy she or he deserved. With the help of a caring listener, private life stories can see the light of consciousness. Sometimes a person’s sense of wellbeing depends on transforming painful untold stories into to healing narratives.
What happens to those banned stories that don’t break away from the basement of one’s repression? It is not uncommon for emotionally injurious life events to get pushed out of the realm of awareness. But they do find a back door to escape. Those forbidden tales find expression through reenactment which is unconscious compulsion to repeat the traumatic past. I sometimes notice an unhealthy pattern of behaviors in people’s lives correlates with their unexamined past histories. Once the tale of mistreatment is empathized with, reflected upon, and understood, it often leads to insight and behavioral change. People do not have to recreate their history of mistreatment. It is hopeful to know that illuminating significant life events to gain insight, and find meaning in them can be a liberating experience.
There are times that one’s personal story is filled with so many atrocities that sharing them can feel re-traumatizing. Sharing one’s traumatic tale needs to be done with the help of a trained counselor. It takes special clinical skills to help someone not only find a channel to release the untold story but reveal the truth of what one endured. During one’s psychotherapy process, the untold or forgotten personal story can be conveyed through dream analysis, bodily sensations (somatic psychotherapy), dance movements, psychodrama, drawings, sand tray images, paintings, journaling, and other channels of expression. We are living in an exciting time in which healing counseling tools are available to people.
Not all personal stories involve devastation. Life stories that involve joy, accomplishments, and overcoming obstacles need to be embraced as well. Such uplifting legends can be life affirming and lead to feelings of gratitude. Having a balanced view on life experiences can add harmony to one’s life. We all carry special stories that once acknowledged and understood can add meaning to our lives and inspire others. Everyone deserves to be heard and deeply understood.